It makes a difference.
Say you’re having chest pain and shortness of breath. You’re 20-something? Ain’t no thing! Probably too many 5-cent Buffalo wings and beers the night before! Pop some Tums and head back to bed for another 10 hours! It’ll pass!
Same thing happens…. but you’re well into your 40s? Oooooh, this is it. Heart attack city.
There’s no freak out like a middle-aged freak out — because you’re old enough to stare down your own mortality.
I would know.
This story of hypochondria starts — as most do — with the Internet. More specifically Facebook and a thoughtfully shared Washington Post story about a healthy 46-year-old woman who woke up nauseated. She crawled out of bed, barfed and figured she’d wait for the stomach flu to pass. Her alarmed husband took her to the emergency room. Good thing. It was a heart attack.
I read that and stashed it with all my other mental medical files about seemingly innocuous symptoms that spell trouble.
A week later, that chilling article, along with some thorough Internet research, had me convinced three days of tightness in my chest coupled with shortness of breath meant This Was It.
If I’ve learned nothing else from Facebook, and really I haven’t because I still can’t fix my privacy settings, I did learn this: Get to the ER. Stat.
Besides, it was a Friday night and I have three kids. I had nothing better to do.
The sliding glass doors of the ER whooshed open and — I was greeted by three-quarters of Tucson.
Now I understand why hospitals offer valet parking.
Though I was immediately whisked back for an EKG, it became obvious — as the clock ticked on and still no one had thrown me onto a gurney and cracked my chest open — that I was not dying.
The more medical personnel I relayed my symptoms to, the dumber I felt. And I said so.
“Better safe than sorry” was the very kind, sympathetic response I got each time. True, true — but also much easier said when you’re on the other end of that $150 co-pay.
In between EKGs and blood work and checking my vitals and a chest X-ray, I watched my fellow patients. An ER waiting room is primo people watching. Way better than what was flickering on a microscopic TV screen above my head, which was, no joke, a zombie movie.
Half the people shuffling around in their slippers with their paper medical masks and sad, drippy eyes already looked like the walking dead.
A woman threw up in the trash can, a family waltzed in with a small white dog wearing a flower-festooned, pink cape and that pooch was better dressed than most of us slumped in the chairs. One dude stormed off, angry at the wait.
As the hours inched closer to midnight, I debated skipping out. After spending a significant chunk of my phone’s data plan, I was halfway to being able to add “MG” after my name, Medical Googler. I had tentatively diagnosed myself with myocarditis. Or perhaps pericarditis.
Turns out, I was wrong, but not (obviously) dead wrong. I was plagued by an -itis alright, costochondritis, inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone, thanks to a chronic cough, proclaimed the guy with the bona fide MD after his name.
Treatment plan: Quit coughing! And take ibuprofen as necessary.
So yes, I lost a Friday night in a fluorescently-lit ER waiting room, but …. perspective.
I didn’t die and now I have peace of mind along with two EKGs and a chest X-ray of a normal, healthy heart for my medical files.
Plus, I can think of worse ways to spend four and a half hours. After all, I endured several seasons of Little League Baseball.